What is evil and why does it exist?
I know what virtue is, but it is not my inclination to practice it. I know what vice is, but refusing it is not up to me but Him. I do as I am told by some ‘god’ seated in my heart.
— Duryodhana from Mahabharata
It’s easy for religious and spiritual leaders to point out and explain all that’s good about the world. We might walk out of a church, synagogue, dharma talk or satsang feeling that all really is good with the world if only we stop to look around—and we wouldn’t be wrong! Not only does nature provide everything we need and much more, but there are endless examples of compassion and selfless acts by individuals who go out of their way—sometimes at the risk of their own lives—to help those in need. There are also millions of small gestures of kindness everyday that are mostly taken for granted, from the person who gives up their seat on the subway, to the local business who refuses to raise their prices in the face of inflation.
But we only need to read the news to be quickly reminded that all isn’t well in samsara. Most religious and spiritual people struggle to make sense of the evil in the world. Their typical answer is “It’s God’s way,” which usually means, “I have no idea.” Ask anyone else why evil exists and they might just shrug their shoulders and say, “Shit happens.” Evil, whether viewed as having natural causes or human, challenges our fundamental beliefs about the world being fair and benevolent. Whether perpetrator, victim or witness, we all pay for the evil acts that can make the world appear a little uglier, a little more difficult to live in.
But what exactly is evil and why does it exist? And from a religious standpoint, why would an omniscient and supposedly benevolent creator include evil in its plan? Even if we accept the inevitability of evil, is it possible to be at peace with it? Is there a mature and intelligent way of coming to terms with the evil in the world that doesn’t leave us lying in a fetal position hoping it would all just go away, or on the other hand, becoming totally indifferent to it?
Evil is a difficult topic for most people because it’s extremely disturbing to look at the destructive side of nature—which, of course, includes human beings. We might be able to accept the random and violent nature of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. We might even be able to accept the vicious and violent aspect of animals such as lions and tigers. But it’s much more difficult for us to comprehend the actions of psychopaths who take pleasure in secretly torturing their victims, and sociopaths who throughout history have sometimes inspired thousands to carry out their evil deeds.
But what are we missing by not looking at man’s evil aspect? Must being “spiritual” only mean we focus on what’s good about us while ignoring the rest? Might there be something to gain by examining not only that which brings us in harmony with the world, but that which distorts our view and makes us more averse to it?
Social psychologist and author, Roy Baumeister has taken a long hard look at evil. In his book, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, Baumeister has waded in the dark waters so we don’t have to. Most importantly, not only does he examine evil from the perspective of the victim, but from that of the perpetrator as well. He also doesn’t rule out the role of observers as witnesses to evil. All three deserve our attention if we wish to get to the bottom of defining what evil is and its causes.
The word “evil” isn’t really a word used in Vedanta—an ancient wisdom tradition based on Sanskrit scripture. Nor would Vedanta ever describe an individual as “evil.” The reason for this is because Vedanta doesn’t view evil as an innate personal defect. Vedanta would argue that perpetrators carry out evil deeds as a result of being under the spell of maya, that is, having an exaggerated misinterpretation of reality. Vedanta teacher, Swami Dayananda, asks:
Why should anybody be given to adharma [the contravening of universal laws]? It is because of the inner pressure. A person is given to crime because of this pressure, and this pressure is much greater in some people due to their background. The habitual offenders are those who are not able to find a way to manage this pressure. To label them is not helpful to anyone. No person is a born-criminal; he is made into a person given to crime. There is no evil. In Sanskrit, we do not have a word for evil. There is dharma-adharma, and puṇya-pāpa [good karma/bad karma], but no concept of evil.
Baumeister would agree that evil isn’t born of “solitary actions by solitary individuals.” Perpetrators, victims and observers are all necessary parts to the equation. ”Evil is socially enacted and constructed. It does not reside in our genes or in our soul, but in the way we relate to other people.” Most psychologists, as well as Vedanta, would concur that pure evil doesn’t exist. Vedanta, instead, suggests that evil is a combination of ignorance, conditioning and improper action.
The dictionary defines evil as that which is “profoundly immoral and wicked.” The first thing to know about evil, according to Baumeister, is that evil is in the eye of the beholder. This aligns with Vedanta’s view that reality is value neutral and that we create our own reality based on our interpretation (pratibhasika satya). Nature does not judge the lion for killing the elk, nor does the lion feel any pride or guilt about it. Must we still believe the lion is evil for killing the elk? The lion lacks an intellect and is programmed to kill elk—it has no actual say in the matter. Thus, we could conclude that good and evil are only relative from a person’s point of view. Life just is. Whether we judge the lion to be evil or not is strictly up to us.
Excluding random violent acts of nature, evil can be defined as the belief that an individual or group was deliberately harmed by another, either in an effort to gain something through expedient actions or for the sheer pleasure of it. It requires the intentional actions of one individual, the suffering of a second, as well as the judgment of the second or other observer. In other words, evil requires at the very least, a perpetrator and a victim.
It’s a wonder why evil actions occur at all since they typically end badly for everyone, offer few benefits to the perpetrator, and are hardly worth the risk. The victim inevitably perceives their losses as great, while the perpetrator often perceives their gains as minimal, if not, null. The victim might perceive themselves as having become scarred for life, while the perpetrator dismisses their actions as being “no big deal.”
Most robberies bring only a few dollars in income. Rapes typically bring only minimal sexual pleasure. Torture almost never elicits useful, accurate information. Terrorism and assassination do not bring about the political goals they were meant to promote. Most murderers soon regret what they did as a pointless, self-defeating act emerging from a trivial dispute. Governments that use repressive violence to silence dissent do not end up with the popular support they envisioned. People who beat up their loved ones do not achieve the family relationships they want.
Evil, it appears, is a losing game with little or no long-term gains.
The author describes evil as having four root causes:
The desire for material gain (e.g., money, property, power, etc.). Of course, there is nothing innately evil about desiring material gain—it all depends on the method of acquiring it. Baumeister states that the first root of evil is instrumental, “a resort to objectionable techniques as a way of achieving acceptable ends.” For example, a criminal might think, “Why work for it when I can just take it?”
Threatened egotism. Contrary to the myth that evil individuals have low-self esteem—bullies, criminals and killers tend to have too high self-esteem. It’s actually due to their over-sized egos that they find it necessary to lash out and defend themselves against every perceived threat. Egotism, it turns out, is a common feature of evil.
Idealism. This is reserved for the self-righteous who believe they are doing their duty by carrying out their vision for a better world—one that, usually, aims to control and push others out. They are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve what they imagine to be, the highest ideal. History is littered with over-zealous charismatic leaders who thought they knew what was best for the world and set out to do it with force. “Noble ends are often seen as justifying violent means.”
Pursuit of sadistic pleasure. According to Baumeister, sadism (in this case, general pleasure derived from inflicting pain and suffering on others) occupies a much smaller percentage of the world’s evil. This bizarre behavior is acted out by a very few who acquire it through the repetition of evil acts. Sadism is usually associated with serial killers and torturers.
In addition, popular culture may define evil as:
The other, the enemy or outside group
The antithesis of order, peace and stability
Perpetuated by those who are unable to control their feelings, including rage and anger (i.e. those “crazy,” “possessed,” “insane” people)
Being the same since time immemorial
Existing apart from other factors (i.e. an outside power or entity)
In Christianity, the Devil is the epitome of pure evil, a mythological being that has no other purpose than to inflict pain and suffering onto others. The Devil and pure evil is the myth of suffering for the sake of suffering. A chief characteristic of the Devil that mostly goes unnoticed today (due to society’s favorable view of individuals who display high self-esteem) is pride. In fact, the first sin reported in biblical scripture isn’t Adam and Eve and the fall in the Garden of Eden, but Satan wanting to be God’s equal and replace him as ruler of the universe. The Devil’s sin was that he chose to love himself more than God.
In modern life, given the apotheosis of self-esteem, religious figures have backed away from condemning the sin of pride, but through most of history, pride was a central aspect of badness. The great evil figures of religion and mythology do not have low self-esteem—on the contrary, they have always been inordinately proud, confident, and even arrogant.
It could be argued that egotism is the most pervasive cause of evil. Violence often comes about as a result of an egotistical individual being humiliated, embarrassed or treated with disrespect. The result is often a strong urge to take revenge. From playground bullying to mass genocide, violence typically comes from individuals who have very high opinions of themselves.
The association of evil with narcissistic figures is strewn throughout Baumeister’s book, but he also repeatedly mentions loss of self-control as another important aspect of evil. He notes that violence is often an impulsive action representing a failure of self-restraint—and yet—it’s a failure that is frequently acquiesced. People have no shortage of evil thoughts, it’s only an individual’s inner guards that keep violent impulses at bay. “You do not have to give people reasons to be violent, because they already have plenty of reasons. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves.”
He postulates the reason American culture is so violent isn’t because it endorses violence, but because it’s sympathetic to losing a certain amount of self-restraint. In the 70’s, this was often portrayed on American TV where every conflict was settled with a fist fight (how quaint!). Unfortunately, American attitudes have turned extreme in recent years and we are now at the point where acquiescing self-control might mean walking into a public place with an AR-15. Sadly, America has decided that instead of having a national conversation about how we might better practice self-restraint, we should double-down and each arm ourselves to the teeth against the “bad guys.”
Americans also seem to give more acceptance to what might be referred to as “irresistible impulses.” We like to justify our over-eating, over-drinking, over-sexing, over-everything as the fault of incontrollable impulses that render us passive and helpless. Such passiveness and helplessness in the face of our impulses might even find acceptance in a court of law (“But she made me do it!”). Few of us realize that we’re active accomplices in indulging such impulses and that there is actually a choice if we only stop to examine our impulses before we go ahead and open the flood gates. But as we all know, resisting impulses is hard work and perhaps a little harder for the criminal.
Criminals are more likely than other people to smoke and drink (in excess), to abuse drugs, to have impulsive sex, to become involved in unwanted pregnancies, to have unstable marriages, to get into petty fights, to be involved in automobile accidents, and so on. When they do make a large sum of money from some crime, they tend to blow it in short order, as opposed to, say, investing it in interest-bearing mutual funds…There is a whole criminal life-style, marked by the search for quick, easy gains and the easy yielding to temptations.
These two, egotism and loss of self-control, seem to define the causes for the majority of evil. And while Vedanta doesn’t have a lot to say about “evil,” per se, scripture does mention the character traits that bind one to a life of misery.
Most of Chapter 16 of the Bhagavad Gita is dedicated to describing in detail the attributes of asuras—demonic individuals with destructive tendencies whose demeanor was mythologized during India’s Vedic period. Asuras may be compared to psychopaths and sociopaths who represent the extreme end of ignorance. Their sense of self-worth is off the charts. They consider all others as inferiors; simple widgets to be used for their own needs.
Baumeister explains that while such people might be abnormal, they aren’t mentally ill in the usual sense: “They function reasonably well in society, are well in touch with reality, and their actions are freely chosen rather than being driven by compulsions or irresistible urges.” Unfortunately, many sociopaths, due to their unshakable self-confidence and ability to deflect guilt or shame, become powerful influencers, businessmen, and even politicians.
In my book, The Wisdom Teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, I explain how verses from the Gita describe a life of “spiritual poverty.” Krishna, in the Gita, states:
Absent of discrimination, those with vain hopes, fruitless actions and useless knowledge take to the deluding tendencies of rakshasas and asuras. (9.12)
I go on to explain that:
Rakshasas [another malevolent entity from Indian mythology] and asuras are similar, but in general, asuras are the worst of the two being predominantly tamasic [dull; fearful; unable to see the effect of one’s actions] and prone to cruelty and violence. Rakshasas are rajasic [aggressive; lustful for material gain] and although not as much as an immediate threat to society as asuras, still bring with them a trail of destruction and harm. Both are narcissists, obsessed over sense objects and with little regard for others. They have no desire to understand themselves or show empathy for others. All things, people and relationships are just objects to be used for their own enrichment. Both lead lives dominated by desire, anger and greed. Because they have no empathy or sense of shame, certain people may admire them for their impressive display of confidence and their ability to be unperturbed by the results of their actions. Their disregard for ethics and playing by the rules makes them appear strong and invincible to those who admire their brazenness. And yet, their success depends on fulfilling the needs of a very fragile ego which must be constantly fed so that it can feel substantial and real. In order for this to work, the rakshasa and asura must continuously knock down their perceived enemies like a game of whack-a-mole and convince themselves and others they are the best, even if it means lying, gaslighting or ensuring that others do it for them.
As mentioned before, Chapter 16 of the Gita is most interesting for its juxtaposition of spiritual wealth with spiritual poverty. Krishna describing the latter says:
Pride, anger, conceit, harshness, lack of discrimination, and hypocrisy with reference to dharma, belong to the one born into the wealth of an asura. (16.4)
I then continue to describe Vedanta’s stance on what constitutes “evil”:
Krishna uses the asura as an example to describe a psychological state in which certain human tendencies can conflict with our highest goals. It should also be noted that just because a person displays asura qualities does not mean they are “evil,” it just shows their thinking is wrong. In other words, it shows they are under the spell of ignorance. As proven by the essence of what we are, nobody is innately “bad.” It’s only by the power of maya that we lose our direction, causing suffering to ourselves and to those around us. If asuras really understood the suffering their actions caused, they wouldn’t be doing them in the first place because they would see that their wicked ways, in the long run, don’t benefit them. But because they lack insight or any desire for self-reflection, they continue with their course of action, indifferent to the laws of cause and effect.
Maya, in this case, can be defined as that which deludes us. Krishna continues his description of the asura:
Those with qualities belonging to the asuras do not know what is to be done or what is to be avoided. Inner cleanliness, proper conduct, nor truthfulness is to be found in them. The asuras say the world of people is without truth, without moral basis, and is godless. They believe its cause is nothing more than the union of male and female driven by lust. Believing this, these corrupted souls who are of meagre thinking and cruel actions, rise as the enemies of the world for its destruction. (16.7-9)
This last verse is particularly descriptive in how it defines those who “rise as the enemies of the world for its destruction.” In the Gita, the antagonist, Duroyodhana, fits the bill as an asura. Because of his greed and blindness to the effect of his actions, thousands will perish and be left without family to care for them. I write:
Krishna’s language in describing “these enemies of the world” takes on a stronger tone as he suggests the philosophy these individuals inhabit, which is “Life is a dog-eat-dog world. Better to eat than be eaten.” They have no interest in the subject of karma or belief in cause and effect. Because they believe people only have selfish motives, they say the world is “untruthful, without ethical basis, godless.” And because they believe their good birth is only the result of genetics, they say the world is simply “born of the union of male and female.” As a result of being of “meagre thinking and cruel actions,” they leave destruction in their wake.
The asura, thus, believes:
‘This enemy I have destroyed, and others I will destroy too. I am the chief. I acquire all that pleases me. I am that which is successful, powerful, and happy. I am rich and of high birth—who else is as great as me? I will perform rituals so others may know of my great devotion, and I will give so others will know of my great charity.’ (16.14-15)
The asura, up to his usual tricks, gives only in order to keep appearances. But reality eventually catches up with these poor souls.
Confused by their many pretty things, entangled in the net of delusion, and addicted to self-gratification, they fall into a loathsome hell. (16.16)
I reason that:
Because they are so committed to fulfilling their desires at all costs, they accumulate much papa karma [bad karma]. They end up making too many excuses and playing the victim too many times in order to hide their incompetence and wrongful deeds. They have told too many lies and can no longer remember what their story is anymore. Their biggest fear is that their own supporters will grow weary of their big talk and lose faith. Eventually, they fall into terrible places of suffering.
Krishna next, goes on to explain the fate of these beings who “I hurl repeatedly into the wombs of asuras and the cycle of birth and death.” Karma theory tells us they are born in the form of insects or animals where they have the opportunity to exhaust their cruelty before returning to a human form again. “The cycle of birth and death,” of course, being a well-known definition for samsara.
In Vedanta, karma works like credit but instead of credit, one accrues good or bad karma. Figuratively speaking, the individual at the end of their life gets a “karma score.” If the karma score is good, he or she gets to take a vacation on some tropical celestial island. If the karma score is bad, they get to take time off being a dung beetle or a carcass maggot until they accrue enough good credit/karma to return to the human realm. All beings in samsara have credit cards—except for the enlightened. The enlightened see through the game, decide they want out, and cut their cards. The enlightened may still have some debt to pay, but they are no longer accruing bad or good credit. They only pay in cash.
Welcome to the karma matrix
All theories of an afterlife aside, karma is about much more than reincarnation. Karma is also about cause and effect and recognizing that there are larger forces at play that, as individuals, we need to be mindful of. Evil tends to demonstrate a reckless abandon when it comes to the physical, psychological and moral laws that govern the dharma field. The dharma field is like a giant game where God keeps the Total functioning in perfect equilibrium by enforcing certain rules. Rogue players may have their day but not for long. Psychological and moral laws help keep us in line and ensure that evil never gains the upper hand for very long.
Most people feel some form of suffering when they contravene the universal laws. For example, the psychological laws dictate that living in a place of extreme violence, such as a war zone, will traumatize and leave long-lasting mental scars for both victims and perpetrators alike. As Baumeister shares in his book, killing, for most people, is not only a moral dilemma, but can actually cause a violent physiological reaction (although, the repulsion diminishes as killing becomes normalized). Of course, going against the universal psychological laws can lead to a myriad of internal problems, including thoughts of suicide, while going against universal moral laws (e.g. lying, stealing or killing) can lead to feelings of regret, guilt and shame.
Sociopaths might lack empathy and a moral compass, but their willing ignorance of such laws almost always leads to their own self-destruction. With such individuals, events eventually start to spin out of control as those more vulnerable who aided them for so long, begin to exhibit a sense of guilt. In due course, the individual’s evil acts are no longer tolerated and others are willing to go to extreme measures in order to stop them. Like justice, the gears of karma turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.
How we lose self-control
Baumeister in his book compares evil to a seed that requires the right conditions in order for it to grow. A seed may be planted, but absent any moisture and heat, will not sprout. One of Baumeister’s points is that evil can have unremarkable, even innocent beginnings. It’s not until one crosses the line that powerful forces might motivate one to “greater acts of cruelty, violence, or oppression.”
In Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the sequence for how the senses can take control of the mind and lead to bad decisions:
attachment —> anger —> delusion —> loss of discrimination —> loss of peace and freedom
In the individual who becomes seduced by an object, attachment is born. From attachment, is born desire, and then anger (from not being able to attain what is desired). From anger comes delusion, and from delusion comes loss of discrimination (i.e. not being able to tell right from wrong). The important take-away is that loss of self-control has it’s own process and momentum. And while this process doesn’t necessarily lead to evil—for example, it could, instead, turn inwardly and lead to sorrow, despair or depression—it can lead to evil given the right conditions.
So crossing the line starts with attachment, which is formed from a mental seed. But how do we get attached in the first place? Below is what is sometimes referred to as the samsara chakra, which shows how we get locked into a cycle of never-ending desire for a particular object.
vasana (tendency) > kama (desire) > karma (action)
A vasana is an imprint formed by a pleasant (or unpleasant) experience. It’s an experience that leaves an impression on the mind. If you’ve never had chocolate fudge gelato and then experience what it’s like to have chocolate fudge gelato, it will most likely leave an indelible impression on your subconscious—meaning, your mind will never forget it and might start thinking about it between other thoughts. Like an itch that wants to be scratched, it might even become a habit to think about it. The very thought of it will create a desire, which will motivate you to act (i.e., leave your house to buy gelato), which just reinforces the vasana, which will create another desire, which will cause you to act, and so on. Thus, a vasana might be thought of as a seed that has been planted at one time or another as a result of a particular experience. If the vasana is fed with attention and fulfillment, it will grow. If not, it will wither and eventually die. Sometimes vasanas can remain dormant in the subconscious and seemingly come out of nowhere years later—so persistent is their staying power.
The nature of samsara is that it binds and keeps us in this vicious cycle until we are able to see the truth about our desire and want to get out. Finding the will to get out is usually initiated by the realization that such-and-such desire is actually painful and causing more suffering than pleasure. Sadly, some people are never able to muster the will to get out. They no longer have any control of the object that binds them. The result can be soul-destroying because they have relinquished all personal freedom—the worst of all possible outcomes. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous exist to help individuals caught in such a cycle of addiction and pain.
Vedanta says there’s another element that contributes to attachment that leads to delusion and loss of discrimination. These forces are what make up both our external and internal world. The gunas are the basic constituents or building blocks that make up all objects. Externally, the gunas represent the information, energy and material substance that creates the physical world. Internally, the gunas are psychological phenomena that make the mind coherent one moment, and passionate or dull the next. Everything we experience, even our thoughts and emotions, are made up of the gunas.
There are three kinds of gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. Psychologically, sattva is experienced as clarity, lightness, or happiness; rajas as enthusiasm, desire or anger; and tamas as lethargy, doubt or fear. If we compare the psychological gunas to a jar of water, sattva would be what the water looks like when it’s still and clear; rajas is what it would look like if the water is stirred vigorously; and tamas is what the water would look like if sediment were poured into it.
The gunas are impersonal. Like the weather, they come and go throughout the day moving across the sky of pure unadulterated consciousness. Because the gunas are objects, they are affected by other objects, including objects we encounter externally. For example, the condition of your mind might change depending on what, at the moment, you are taking in or ingesting through the senses. Sounds, sights, smells, tastes and tactile sensations all influence the gunas. In this way, our environment can have a direct effect on whether or not the mind is sattvic, rajasic or tamasic. Too much rajas might make us anxious, lustful or angry, while too much tamas might make us sluggish, depressed or fearful. If we wish to be sattvic, we should try to put ourselves in an environment that supports it. Lifestyle has an undeniable influence on whether or not you are sattvic, rajasic or tamasic.
Actions can also be categorized by guna type. The Gita even mentions sattvic, rajasic and tamasic eating habits! But when referring to proper actions versus improper actions, sattvic actions are considered the antithesis of “evil” actions. Sattva is associated with kindness, harmlessness, and aligning with dharma. Sattvic actions incline one towards doing what’s best for the Total rather than only what’s best for the individual. On the other hand, rajasic actions tend be those based on the acquiring and keeping of objects, thus, they are self-centered. Lastly, tamasic actions are those which are blind to their effect. They are actions in which the well-being of others, and even the individual himself, may be disregarded.
It’s fair to say that criminals are mostly tamasic. The Gita would categorize them specifically as tamasic-rajasic-sattvic, meaning they are predominantly tamasic, next, rajasic and lastly, sattvic. Our saving grace as individuals is that we can upgrade our guna status with lifestyle changes so that having a predominantly tamasic disposition can turn into having a rajasic one, and then having a sattvic one.
The point of discussing the psychological gunas is to show there are impersonal forces that influence and condition us. And yet, it’s not a question of getting rid of the gunas (an impossible task), but managing them and choosing to not identify with them. Just like we need’t believe every thought that crosses our mind, we needn’t identify with the gunas and instead, can learn to see them as natural phenomena that come and go. Rajas and tamas are not necessarily bad, in fact, they are necessary—it’s all just a question of how to manage them and identifying their causes so that we can maintain a sense of self-control. Impulsive criminal behavior tends to be fueled by unrestrained rajas. “The RAJAS made me do it!” cries the guilty—and it did. Again, the error was that it was acquiesced. Where most people will choose to reign in rajas and “get a grip,” others will choose to just “let it rip”—especially the young and foolhardy.
Vedanta shares two disciplines for monitoring and restraining the mind. The first one is shama which might be interpreted as “mindfulness.” First, we must accept that we cannot control all our likes and dislikes. Due to our conditioning, likes and dislikes are going to bubble up involuntarily. However, we can create a certain distance between ourselves and our likes and dislikes. Just because a like arises in the mind doesn’t mean we must act on it. Instead, we can weigh out whether or not we really need to fulfill the desire and in the process, strip away any of its false values. We might ask ourselves, “Is what I want really necessary?” “Is it ‘proper’?” “Is it worth the effort, cost and possible pain associated with it?” We can put the desire through an imaginary panel of judges before simply submitting to its persuasive powers.
Another discipline is dama which acts like internal guards at the mind’s gate. However, these guard the gate from inside, granting, or not, permission to exit the mind’s compound. Dama is equivalent to self-restraint—the last line of protection from desires that have decided to go rogue and make a run for it. Both shama and dama are important for not allowing our desires to wreak havoc on our life. We cannot prevent desires from appearing in the mind, but we can prevent them from making decisions for us.
So far, I’ve shown that attachment leads to lack of discrimination (the ability to tell right from wrong) and that attachment is fed by tendencies called vasanas that grow more powerful the more we choose to feed them. In addition, I’ve shown how the gunas contribute to our conditioning as impersonal forces that influence our decisions. The gunas, our likes and dislikes, and vasanas all help to define our karma and influence how we interact in the world.
Ignorance and egotism
Let’s introduce a fourth perspective that gets to the root of the problem and shows that most of our trouble comes from a misunderstanding of who/what we are. This is directly related to what Baumeister calls egotism or self-centeredness—an important cause of evil. This is also related to the question, why, as individuals, we choose adharma over dharma even when we know adharma doesn’t pay?
First, desire in itself is not bad. Desire is a necessary first step for any action—good, bad or evil. Where we get into trouble with our desires is when they become (1) binding and (2) self-centered. Binding desires can be painful because, as already shown, they relinquish self-control and take away our freedom. They turn us into automatons, and any discrimination is thrown out the window. Self-centered desires can be bad too because they are often about satisfying oneself at the cost of others. Sociopaths see others as lesser beings and will utilize them until they either become tired of them or perceive them as no longer having sufficient loyalty, which, at that point, they will proceed to throw them under the proverbial bus.
Both kinds of desires are not only unhealthy for the individual, but for everyone else. Binding desires can lead to addiction, hyper-consumerism, destruction of the environment, mental and physical illness, broken relationships, dependence, and much more. Self-centered desires, on the other hand, can lead to narcissism, violence, corruption, destruction, and even war. Both can contribute or lead to an eventual break-down of society.
Vedanta argues that unhealthy binding desires are ultimately due to ignorance resulting from a feeling of lack. We feed our desires, create tendencies and put ourselves in the jaws of samsara because a part of us feels unsatisfied. This feeling is usually rooted in our identification with the body-mind and our attempt to complete/fulfill it as a limited entity—which is a losing game if you consider that we’re all susceptible to disease, old age and eventual death. As a result, we seek objects, experiences and relationships that will make us feel whole and complete—even if for a moment.
When we are not able to acquire the objects and relationships we believe will fulfill us, some of us might scheme to acquire them by any means possible. For some, this might mean becoming a small-time swindler. For others, this might mean invading and attempting to take entire countries. It always seems to escape individuals at all levels of society that the nature of samsara is that it is insatiable—the more you want, the more you want. Oblivious to the forces at hand, they blaze through life acquiring and taking as much as they can. They believe happiness lies in objects. Vedanta, using logic, proves that the idea that joy resides in objects is patently false. Objects can cause pleasure, but they are incapable of actually giving pleasure (they are inert, after all). Furthermore, any pleasure derived from them is only the temporary kind. In short, any pleasure from objects is ephemeral.
But the fact that joy isn’t in objects is just a side-show to a much greater ignorance. Using a process that slowly reveals the truth regarding our essence, Vedanta shows that we can’t possibly be the body-mind, that, in fact, we are that which is beyond the body-mind. The body, thoughts and I-sense may come and go, but what is constant, unborn and never dies, is ordinary, actionless, non-dual awareness—the non-experiencing witness.
For now, it’s enough to know that it’s due to the ignorance regarding who/what we are that we feel dependent on pursuing material items, relationships, and experiences to the extent we do. If criminals knew their true identity as non-dual awareness, they wouldn’t be ruining lives, including their own, by creating terror, unnecessary loss of property, destruction and death. Furthermore, if you know who you are, you have no reason to contravene dharma for the simple reason that you have nothing to gain from it. If I know myself to already be whole and complete, what do I have to gain from being adharmic? It’s only due to maya’s power of concealment and projection that we lose sight of the fact that we are already whole and complete.
Thus, Vedanta would argue that egotism is based on the delusion that I believe I am the body-mind and need to elevate its status and sense of being real by any means possible. If maya’s veil were somehow magically raised for all of us, in theory we wouldn’t have any evil. In fact, it’s only due to our ignorance that the world appears a dangerous, frightful place. Take away all ignorance and the world is perfectly fine—even with old age, disease and death. The reason we don’t all suddenly just wake up to this truth is because the truth is counterintuitive and because ignorance is hard-wired. Even Krishna (God’s avatar) admits in the Gita that his maya is difficult to cross. Which brings us to another question: Why does ignorance exist? Who or what would permit such a thing? And lastly, is God evil? Maybe even sadistic?
Is God evil?
In his book, Philosophy of Religion, author John H. Hick presents the theological dilemma:
…if God is perfectly loving, God must wish to abolish all evil; and if God is all-powerful, God must be able to abolish all evil. But evil exists; therefore God cannot be both omnipotent and perfectly loving.
Hick goes on to delineate the three Christian responses to the problem of evil. There is:
…the Augustinian response, hinging upon the concept of the fall of man from an original state of righteousness; the Irenaean response, hinging upon the idea of the gradual creation of a perfected humanity through life in a highly imperfect world; and the response of modern process theology, hinging upon the idea of God who is not all-powerful and not in fact able to prevent the evils arising either in human beings or in the processes of nature.
Baumeister rephrases the predicament when he writes: “You assume either that God chose to permit evil (in which case God seemingly shares the blame) or that God was unable to prevent it (in which God is revealed to be something less than all-powerful).” And yet, “Neither of those views is acceptable to the faithful, because the first implies that God’s goodness is limited and the second that God’s power is limited.”
Whether you’re talking about God as creator (Ishvara) or God as the absolute (Brahman), Vedanta would agree that God can’t be limited. Thus, if God is limitless, it must have every imaginable power, including the power of good and so-called evil (more ignorance). Without ignorance, God becomes limited, which when we investigate, we know is not possible. Vedanta would also point out that God isn’t a person with likes or dislikes. God doesn’t make choices or take sides. Perhaps a more accurate (but less endearing) way to think of God is God as an intelligent, self-organizing system with rules, patterns and symbiotic relationships.
Vedanta eliminates any theological dilemma by showing that God creates but doesn’t actually become its creation. The spider and its web is the most common analogy used to explain this. Like God, the spider is both the material and intelligent cause of its web. The web and its design comes out of the spider and are the spider, but the spider isn’t, nor never becomes, the web. And yet, the cause is still seen in the effect. The web doesn’t make itself. The web’s effect informs us of an intelligent cause.
Author, Arvind Sharma shares another analogy in his book, The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedanta. He explains that one of the features of the earth is that it is associated with the duality of day and night, which is made possible by the presence of the sun. Of course, to the sun there is no day and night because the sun is that which is beyond day and night. Nevertheless, if we must describe the sun in terms of day or night, we will choose day. Similarly, just as the sun is beyond day and night, God is beyond good and evil. And just as the sun is best identified with day, we choose to identify God with that which is good.
We might also perceive that what actually takes place in creation is simply the impersonal playing out of the gunas—part of the order imposed by God. Vedanta teacher, Sundari Swartz further describes the role of the gunas when she writes:
The gunas are what make creation possible—and—there is no way for this reality manifest or function if the gunas do not have the capacity to play out from one end of the spectrum of good to the other, so-called evil. That is the way it is, no point in breaking our hearts over it. If we want a game called Life this is the only way it can be. If there was only good, the whole show would end.
Furthermore, God’s order involves the pairs of opposites. Duality is constructed in a way so that we can’t have cold without hot, sweet without bitter or beautiful without ugly. Take away any of the polarities and it’s game over. Thus, to finally resolve the theological dilemmas—whether or not God chose to permit evil and if not, was God unable to prevent evil—there is no dilemma, we are asking the wrong questions. It’s like inquiring why the rain “permitted” a cataclysmic flood. Furthermore, it was already stated that evil is in the eye of the beholder. Evil exists only as a concept in the minds of individuals, not God. To God, there is not good or evil. So, God isn’t evil, but ignorance of God and its order can lead to evil.
However, we needn’t look at the world as simply a fight between good and evil. As Swami Prabhavananda in his essay, The Problem of Evil, explains:
Looked at from a relative standpoint, this world of appearance is a bleak place, and as such it often drives us to despair. The seers, with their larger knowledge, tell us otherwise. Once we become conscious, even dimly, of the Atman [Self], the Reality within us, the world takes on a very different aspect. It is no longer a court of justice, but a kind of gymnasium. Good and evil, pain and pleasure, still exist, but they seem more like the ropes and vaulting-horses and, parallel bars which can be used to make our bodies strong. Maya is no longer an endlessly revolving wheel of pain and pleasure, but a ladder which can be climbed to consciousness of the Reality. From this standpoint, fortune and misfortune are both "mercies“—that is to say, opportunities. Every experience offers us the chance of making a constructive reaction to it—a reaction which helps to break some chain of our bondage to Maya and bring us that much nearer to spiritual freedom.
Evil from the standpoint of the absolute
Up until now, we have looked at evil mostly from the perspective of duality. Vedanta would remind us that existence is non-dual and that evil, like everything else in duality, is not real. Vedanta defines “real” as that which is always present and never changes. It is also that which is has no dependency. Evil exists because we experience it, but it’s not real in the sense that it comes and goes and is dependent on individuals and their thoughts. Where is evil when you are in deep sleep? On the other hand, from the perspective of the absolute, neither is “good” real. Both exist within maya, this dream-like existence.
In order to see this more clearly, it helps to understand what Vedanta calls the three orders of reality: paramarthika satya (the absolute or pure consciousness), vyavaharika satya (empirical reality) and pratibhasika satya (subjective reality).
Paramarthika satya is pure consciousness. Another word for paramarthika satya is Brahman. It is the light that makes experience possible. It is also the essence of who/what you are. In contrast to empirical reality and subjective reality, paramarthika satya is real because it is always present and never changes. Because paramarthika satya is non-dual, it is not subject to the gunas or pairs of opposites such as “good” and “evil.” Paramarthika satya is in a separate order of reality from the other two. What happens in empirical reality and subjective reality, never effects paramarthika satya.
Vyavaharika satya is transactional reality. It is what is most commonly described as “God’s creation,” including all its variety of objects. It is the field in which individuals interact and act out their karma. It technically also includes feelings and thoughts, as everything in vyavaharika satya is considered to be God. Vyavaharika satya is value-neutral. Good or evil don’t exist in vyavaharika satya because empirical reality just is. Lastly, vyavaharika satya isn’t real because its existence is dependent on consciousness. In Vedanta, something that is dependent on something else isn’t real.
Pratibhasika satya is reality interpreted by the individual based on the impersonal gunas, their likes and dislikes and their vasanas. Where vyavaharika satya is considered God’s creation, pratibhasika satya is considered the individual’s or jiva’s creation. If you are dreaming or fantasizing, you can be sure that pratibhasika satya is operating. Pratibhasika satya is also the reason why one person might see things differently than another. For example, one person might think because it’s raining it’s an ugly day, while another might struggle to understand what is “ugly” about it raining and instead find it pleasant. Evil lives in the realm of pratibhasika satya when individuals judge the actions of another as being unjustifiably harmful.
If, out of the three, paramarthika satya (non-dual consciousness) is the only real truth, and my true nature is paramarthika satya, then evil can’t ever touch me because the truth about who I am resides outside of good and evil. The body-mind might fall victim to evil, but as the Self (another term for non-dual consciousness) I am always free of it.
Krishna, in the Gita, tells Arjuna:
Weapons do not cut it, fire does not burn it, water does not wet it, wind does not wither it. This Self cannot be cut nor burnt nor wetted nor withered. Eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, immovable, the Self is forever the same. (2:23-24)
What to do about evil?
Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. —Serenity Prayer
From the perspective of the individual, each of us has free-will and is able to make choices. We needn’t act on rajas or tamas, or continue to indulge our vasanas. We can break unhealthy patterns that exist within us—even those considered “evil.” We may not be able to stop the evil that happens on the other side of the planet or even within our own city or state, but we can work with what we have—this mind—and stand up to evil when and where it presents itself to us. These minds have plasticity and can be conditioned to take on new “good” habits and let others wither from lack of attention. It’s a lot of work, but it can be done. Society is also influenced by the habits and behaviors of individuals who others model. When a society does nothing to address evil, evil becomes the norm; an accepted reality. Healthy societies require that individuals constantly uphold dharma and demonstrate “the value of values.”
Baumeister reminds us:
It is unlikely that researchers will ever be able to trace specific violent actions directly to specific genes or other inherited physiological properties, but it is clear that nature has programmed people with some tendencies that can lead toward aggressive responses. Rage appears very early in life and is expressed in lashing out at the source of frustration. The tendency to align with one’s fellows and feel hostile toward potential opponents and rivals seems almost ineradicable. Yet culture can exert a great deal of influence in teaching people how to express and control their aggressive impulses. Culture also shapes the situations that form the context for those impulses, including the opportunities for response, the importance of proper response, and the norms of what is proper. And culture articulates the beliefs and myths about evil.
Evil doesn’t just involve a perpetrator and a victim. We all become victims when we are indifferent to it. In the Gita, the warrior-prince Arjuna, decides he wants to throw down his weapon and no longer fight the righteous war when he learns that his beloved friends and relatives are fighting on the side of his villainous cousin, Duryodhana. His charioteer, Krishna, is there to do two things for his friend at his critical time of need: (1) Show him the nature of experience so that he can break through the debilitating despair that is stopping him from defending dharma and (2) make sure that Arjuna doesn’t slink away from his duty and demoralize his entire army as a result. As God’s avatar, Krishna has an agenda and that is to make sure that the fabric holding society together isn’t ripped to shreds by the usual egotistical tendencies of a narcissistic ruler. He needs Arjuna to see the truth so that he can carry out his responsibility, lead his army to victory and defend dharma. As I explained in my book:
In short, Duryodhana is an atatayi—a criminal of heinous acts. In Sanskrit, an atatayi is one who carries out any of the six following wrongdoings: sets fire, poisons, attacks the unarmed with weapons, robs and plunders one’s wealth, takes one’s land, or takes one’s wife. In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana is guilty of all six crimes. His characteristics are not unlike your modern-day despot ruled by ambition and desire for which history never seems to tire. Scripture says that if an adharmic person (one who goes against dharma) doesn’t change through conciliation, compensation, or logic, then the fourth step is punishment, which may only be given by a member of the warrior caste. Duryodhana’s misdeeds have been going on unabated for too long and something must finally be done about it. After much pleading and negotiation, war seems to be the only solution as Yudhishthira reluctantly asks his brothers to put together an army to defeat their cousins, the Kauravas.
Like Arjuna, if it’s within our capacity to diminish evil, then we should. Baumeister shows throughout his book that witnesses to evil play an important role. They can either deter it and stand up to it or sadly, be indifferent to it or in some cases, even encourage it. Group-think is a peculiar phenomenon: it’s not always logical, and like individuals, can lose the ability to discriminate between what’s right and wrong. Due to our tribal instincts (more impersonal forces!), it can take an incredible amount of will to not “align with one’s fellows” and instead, choose to do what’s right.
It should also be obvious from Baumeister’s comment that as a society and culture, we don’t do enough to teach people about certain tendencies and how to manage them. Our education system, for various reasons, is terribly inadequate at teaching important social skills or what some would call “emotional intelligence.” Instead, people learn how to manage their impulses and tendencies through the media, which mostly encourages the acquiescence of self-control and glorifies violence. And while the media isn’t directly responsible for evil, it plays its part by helping us imagine what it looks like. All actions must first be imagined before they can be realized. Someone once said that every war first takes place in someone’s mind.
In the Serenity Prayer, one asks the Lord that they may have the courage to change what they can and accept what they can’t. While there is always an opportunity to change unhealthy habits found within ourselves, there are unpleasant things about the world that we may have no other choice but to accept. It’s true—“shit happens”: Tornadoes wipe out whole communities, tsunamis drown thousands, and pandemics kills the weak and vulnerable, but sometimes evil is also deliberately planned and carried out. The sociopathic despot demands that all his needs are met, regardless of the death and destruction left in his wake.
We are not so sensible of the greatest Health as of the least Sickness.
- Ben Franklin
It’s heartbreaking to read about the daily tragedies that occur relentlessly on our small planet. In the age of 24/7 cable news, anxiety and fear are whipped up to such a degree that we might be afraid to even open our front doors anymore. And yet, we can’t allow ourselves to permanently wallow in the sorrows of the world. Our constant exposure to the media paints too grim a picture. But we must remember it’s the nature of the news to report on what’s shocking and threatening. Journalists don’t report the planes that landed, only the ones that crashed. Nevertheless, as a society we underestimate the psychological hold the media has on our collective psyche and the measure at which we perceive evil in the world. For this reason, perhaps taking a media fast from time to time is prudent.
We shouldn’t be indifferent to the evil found in the world, but neither should we be debilitated by it. There is much more of what’s good about the world than what’s awful. Just to be alive during this time and at this place, and to be able to witness nature’s awesome display is a blessing. We needn’t always focus on the negative, threatening and the fearful aspect of our existence. We can choose to see life perfect as it is, while at the same time, recognizing the beauty and intelligence behind it. Life, after all, is purposely created to work in perfect balance. We must have polarities in order for the world to exist and as a result, evil will always prevail in some form or another. From this perspective, it really is “God’s way.”
We will never be able to “wipe out” evil—this isn’t to say we shouldn’t fight evil, just that we shouldn’t expect there ever to be a time when there will be no evil, or pretend that a utopia is possible. Because for as long as there are individuals born with ignorance, there will always be evil. In the end, there is only one true salvation and that is the knowledge that we are the eternal, unchanging Self—that which is beyond the world and knows neither good nor evil.